“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” said George Orwell, whose essays on the motives and aesthetics of writing must be compulsory reading for anyone who ever sat before a keypad or put pen to paper.
Orwell spoke of four main motives for writing, the first being sheer egoism. And I have always found that one cannot write or stand before a crowd to talk or perform without entertaining a hint of self-importance and vanity. It just cannot be done. The very fact that you think you have something to say and that you can say it better than another is, ipso facto, a notion fraught with copious egoism.
Orwell’s second motive was aesthetic enthusiasm; the adoration one has for the written word in and of itself; or the infatuation with text as visual art. The extreme form of this motive is expressed perhaps by calligraphers who might care more for the visual appeal of the text than the actual message that lies thereunder. Speakers who went at lengths to perfect their power-point presentations, and fellow bloggers who spent substantial time on embellishing the interface of their blogs, understand how important a motive is aesthetics.
Writing is not at all unlike art. There is magic in each stroke of a pen, every slight motion of wrist that creates with it a curve or angle that’s readily deciphered by another and impinges upon her or him an emotional impact that is far greater than the visual effects of the script. It is perhaps not a coincidence that those who are not so well-endowed with the skills of brush and paint seem to compensate by prose. By using their pallet of grammar, word order, delicately mixing ceremonious prose with colloquial conversation, writers, like all artists, aspire to forge through the humble tools of ordinary language lasting imageries and provocative impressions.
Political purpose and historical impulse are the other motivations Orwell talked of. These belong to writers who believe they are on a mission to inculcate sense into heathens, and bring enlightenment to philistines; those who much too often take their writing seriously and expect others to act accordingly. I, unfortunately, cannot take my writing seriously, because I cannot take myself seriously.
In answering the question of why I took up my current profession, I often retorted by saying that the circus wasn’t hiring at the time I was looking for a job. For in essence, what is a journalist, or in that case a diplomat, a civil-servant or a public official, but a person who tries to keep balance on a very thin line, who is an adept juggler of words and opinions, a tamer of political animals and a trapeze player on the open stage of conflict and make-believe peace?
In short, political purpose or historical impulse are the motives that most writers will refer to when they explain why they write, completely flouting the real motives that had them start: vanity, and self-expression.
It is often the case that people will resort to writing to unravel themselves before their own eyes. It is their way of searching for the answers within, and in the area of politics it helps them realize where they stand on topics and whether or not they can aptly express the intricate thoughts behind their nuanced opinions. For others, writing is merely a tool for de-stressing, or a measure by which to escape their discomforting solitude or to harness their moment of solitude and transfigure it into a flash of creativity.
Isabelle Allende once wrote about writing as an act of hope. She referred to the way writing enabled her to express her anxieties over exile, and to reach out to those whom she loved and missed. But in effect, what she described as her writing was not a contrivance of hope as much as it was an act of flailing desperation.
Talking and writing are, quintessentially, acts of desperation. In them lie the futile hope that someone has the time to listen, the will to empathize, the compassion to care, the desire to know, and the ability to help. It is almost impossible for these virtues to simultaneously befall a given individual, and even if they do then certainly not for an indefinite period of time. Choosing to talk or write, thinking otherwise about the inherent apathy of man, is an act of blundering naivety and incurable gullibility. Choosing to talk or write despite the full awareness of this apathy reflects selfishness, pretentiousness or condescension.
Though one may write for writing’s sake, for the beauty of the written word, that motive is not in itself sustainable, no matter how noble and pristine it may be. It is rather with a certain vainglorious optimism that a reader is out there; that a listener awaits round every corner; that we have uncanny abilities to create memorable imprints in the sand, it is with this illusory hope that we continue to write and speak.